Read Jay Bernard’s ‘England Street (Reggae fi Linton)’, commissioned to celebrate Linton Kwesi Johnson winning the 2020 PEN Pinter Prize. Featuring a specially commissioned introduction to the poem from Jay.
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Is there anything worse than explaining a poem? But I will say that I wrote the piece in response to many things: LKJ’s work over the years; the era that formed and was influenced by Dread, Beat and Blood (1978) in particular, the area of Brixton where I grew up and first heard his songs, and where I still spend a lot of time. Up near Poet’s corner, towards the top of Railton Road, there are streets named after Spenser, Milton, Shakespeare and Chaucer. Further down Shakespeare Road, there are newer housing blocks named after Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Derek Walcott, etc. – only one, James Joyce, could be said to be from ‘these islands’. In another poem, I will reckon with street names, poets from elsewhere, the British Empire and what all of that could mean; but for this poem, I was more interested in the symbol of Railton Road (nicknamed ‘the frontline’ for many years during the 1970s and 80s, because it was where black people lived and where the police were afraid to go) and those four roads, almost like tombs, sitting at the top of it. Someone had an idea about the area – about Britishness, about Literature – that led them to choose those four writers, and that decision impacts me intensely whenever I am up there because the weight of those poets does not go unnoticed, not for an English graduate, and not for someone who knows what I know about Johnson’s work and the immediate area.
It’s an interesting exercise, writing about someone living. You have to think twice about what you do or don’t say (which is always the case with poetry, but it’s a different kind of responsibility when you’re celebrating someone’s achievements). I am hardly the celebratory type – I tend towards the anxious and the funereal – but one way in was to look at what Johnson did himself: he wrote reggaes. And so, I thought, why not begin with this very specific bit of South London, where the poets sleep, and make it a metaphor for Britain? ‘Linton Street”’ seemed weird as a title, because it was too reverent – why not ‘England Street?’ And have the subtitle, ‘Reggae fi Linton”’, as a reference to what Johnson himself did on Bass Culture (1980) for Blair Peach, and on More Time (1999) for May Ayim and Bernard – made them an indelible part of British social history. I wanted to write something that was more about looking at how Britain had been changed – ‘re-said’ – but to also look at what it means to be a poet; to be both part of that change and apart from it.
I chose to write in alternate lines of iambic pentametre and hexametre; I used nine lines as Spenser did when writing The Faerie Queene, and chose to extend his use of iambic hexametre (he only uses it in the last line of each stanza), mainly for fun. But there’s something weird about the alternation; iambic hexametre doesn’t really work in English, you have to break too soon – I found myself running out of steam after two or three feet, so that I had to think of each line with a certain regard to the centre. The middle of each line became this weird swamp where I was trying to fit descriptive polysyllables. I think I’ve ironed most of that out.
One of the observations made about poetry of resistance is that it is so often plaintive. Not only do I not see that in the work of LKJ, I also didn’t want to replicate it myself. So the reggae bit, the bit where I move into something more lyrical, was a way of moving into the infinite, the melodic, the proverbial – the private, necessary act of singing to oneself and revelling in it. This exact magic has been shown recently: Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series features one film called ‘Lover’s Rock’. The most remarkable scene is of a crowd of people at a house party who begin dancing to Janet Kay’s Silly Games, but about halfway through the DJ realises that everyone is singing along and turns the music off. What remains is a stunning acapella accompanied by the rhythm of people’s feet as they slow dance together.
It’s easy to see radical, violent energy as the only path to something new, but actually there’s a directness and understatement to LKJ’s work which puts me in mind of the aforementioned scene. Sure, in his work war is invoked, riots and uprisings are reimagined, and the pulse of dub animates everything with a dark, frenetic energy. But listen to LKJ’s voice: it’s level-headed, canny, observant, feeling, spacious. Like he’s advocating an atomic shift, a kind of respect for forms as opposed to units, for radical change at the pace of the everyday.
The reality is that we are at a stage in history in which our ideas cannot simply mirror the past – and we are in danger of doing that. Yet we must remember the past and catch hold of the roots in order to imagine something new. That’s what Johnson did, that’s why he’s being awarded. But even without awards (and let’s be honest, there was nothing inevitable or freely given about his success within British literature) there was the indisputable change that came from the music, the poetry and the cultural innovations of the day, and that collectively challenged the vestiges of empire, white supremacy, racism – the political death-mode that profits from the degradation and extermination of everything that is not itself.
You cannot ask a single poet to speak to all of that; a poet speaks for themself. But you can see how movements and ideas, actions and outcomes are born from a particular historical moment. There is no point trying to recreate it or expecting it to follow the same trajectory. LKJ’s work was about that time, and it bleeds into our own. So: what do we need to imagine next?
England Street (Reggae fi Linton)
The frontline in the eighties started here,
on Railton Road that leads up to Herne Hill – a bridge,
a skeleton that stands above the clouds,
deserted once, now demolished, now sold, the soul
of not so long ago remains if you
know poet’s corner, branching from the main
in back suburban roads, all sceptres stretched,
from Loughborough, to Effra, to Tulse Hill, were once
the scene of war, of lightning in the land.
Those voices, cold, now mingled with the mud
are conjured by their name, each street a tomb, and dub
is that same echo remixed then delayed
by slow filtration, one time through the smoke and sweat,
two times through the hostile, staring crowds
until somewhere the inspiration strikes:
night sweats and tradition mark the voice that
sings most clearly that which Chaucer wrote
and Shakespeare knew – what passes persists:
The drum beat and vocals vibrate through the dark
the spaces inside you where sound disembarks
and softly remixes the beat of your heart
Oh the siren –
South London was a pasture once (and will
be once again), but in between the prioress
and dizzee rascal, England was re-said,
our voice collective like the black starling’s murmur,
red fire of the front line now embers,
the bleeding stanched, there is no riot here.
Now faceless, sightless virus offers
grim niceties where once they told it how it is.
The boys in blue, they hated you, MPs,
social workers too. Spat in the street, killed
students from the colonies and burned us,
put protestors in cells with psychopaths all night;
by morning all the evidence was lost.
Like a quarto known through works of other men
the coroner can archive every bruise
but rumour and the poet know the song:
The silence you keep in your heart every day
the ghosts of your conquests will keep peace away
the things that you know in your heart but don’t say
Oh the siren –
No national restatement can disprove
what Milton and the others said direct,
what King Tubby started Johnson would perfect.
All history traversed, one beat to the next,
all England in a single street traversed,
the footwork of a shadow with a bomb thrown high
come to us in the tidemarks where brickwork
was restored, five nights of bleeding visible in stone.
Dread, Beat and Blood came pouring that same year
as Yorkshire’s Ripper, Thatcher’s Swamp, Altab Ali,
Viv Anderson breaks out and Caldwell’s shot.
Ford closes due to strikes and strikers ration bread.
The headlines then more striking than today’s,
today’s less striking than what is to come.
The paradox of history as time descends
is that it has been said, will be said again:
The voice of a friend that you don’t recognise
speaks only to that which supports all his lies
the turning of heaven’s a trick of the eyes
Oh the siren –
© Jay Bernard 2020
‘England Street (Reggae fi Linton)’ was commissioned by English PEN, 2020, as part of the PEN Pinter Prize 2020.
Jay Bernard (FRSA, FRSL) is from London and the author of Surge (2019) a queer exploration of the archives surrounding the New Cross Fire in 1981. Jay won the Ted Hughes Award 2017, and Surge has been shortlisted for the Forward, Costa, Ondaatje and T.S Eliot prizes and the Dylan Thomas award.